Knowledge based on memory: Testing in education

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail,”
 psychologist Abraham Maslow once said. The same is true with tests in education. When studying for tests, students hammer in and memorize the information.   But if the end result is to have students truly learn then evaluating through simple knowledge recall is not a good approach. A student who can recall information cannot necessarily use that information in new situations or draw connections between ideas. Evaluating knowledge should not be based on tests, as memories are not a reliable judge of intelligence, everyone learns differently, and it gives students limited knowledge on broad topics.

Despite the belief that one’s mind is like a camcorder and stores footage of everything you see, memories are not reliable. In an article called Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts, authors Hal Arkowitz and Scott O. Lilienfeld spoke to a psychologist about how memories really work. In the article, eminent memory researcher and psychologist Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California is quoted as saying, “The act of remembering…(is) more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording.” Memories also are subject to change. Though we rely on eyewitnesses in court cases, questioning can cause the memories to be reconstructed; the same could be said for test questioning. Especially in the case of multiple-choice questions, the memories of students can be altered by the list of potential answers as all brains work differently.

According to the National Eye Institute, eight per cent of men and 0.5 per cent of women have red-green colour blindness and as a result, each of those individuals sees differently. Now consider this: 5310,210 people are deaf or hard of hearing in Ontario, according to the Canadian Hearing Society. This affects the way these people experience the world. “The one size fits all approach of standardized testing is convenient but lazy,” according to the British designer and industrialist James Dyson.

Standardized testing limits students to certain skills, specifically short-term memory recall. Scientists found that there are three key tests needed to evaluate intelligence: short-term memory, reasoning and verbal skills should all be assessed when determining intelligence, according to an online intelligence test launched in 2010, by The Daily Telegraph and New Scientist. The same study revealed brain training had no effect on a person’s performance, but rather people with different skills, health issues and pastimes score differently when it comes to short-term memory. Video gamers scored significantly higher in reasoning and short-term memory whereas smokers and those who suffered from anxiety had a much weaker short-term memory.

“We can all think of people that have poor reasoning and brilliant memories, or fantastic language skills but aren’t so hot at reasoning, and so on. Now once and for all we can say there is not a single measure such as IQ which captures all the intelligence that you see in people,” said Dr. Roger Highfield, the Telegraph columnist and one of the authors of the paper.

Think about math class. We are taught to memorize formulas, from multiplication tables to pi. Tests, however, only prepare students for certain areas of each subject. The National Academic Press (NAP) say in their book, Incentives and Test-Based Accountability in Education, that by preparing students for tests and the questions that will be on tests the student will have a limited subset of skills. “It indicates only that students have learned to correctly answer the specific kinds of questions that are included on that particular test. It does not indicate that that students have also attained greater mastery of the broader domain that the test is intended to represent,” the NAP wrote in the book. By testing, students are learning in depth in some areas and briefly in others. The result? Students will only retain as much as their memory can hold.

Grades are necessary in education but it doesn’t make sense to give out diplomas based on Scantron bubbles. What we need is recognition of individual achievement and that is not going to come from standardized testing.


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Taylor Waines is a second-year journalism student at Durham College. When it comes to writing and reporting, she enjoys covering concerts, health concerns and student issues. She likes to spend her spare time writing, and drawing. Taylor hopes to continue feature writing following graduation.